Bhansar Village in the Tanahun District, 140 kilometers west of Kathmandu, is home to the Gandharba Community, a musician caste of Nepal. The community is made up of 26 Gandharba houses and 150 residents.
Nepal has a few musician castes that use song and music as their hereditary occupation. The Gandharba’s uniqueness comes from their use of the sarangi, a four-string instrument played with a bow, and their broad repertoire of songs. For centuries, the Gandharba played the sarangi as a tradition and profession. As a consequence of relying on the instrument for their livelihood, they were able to preserve their culture, art, and heritage since ancient times. The Gandharba musicians traveled throughout the country playing their music, and through their music, they sang messages of the people and kings and about heroic deeds. The Gandharba musicians were messengers of the nation. In fact, in many ways they still are, as they are the only conveyors of news and messages from times long past.
In Bhansar, people have their own culture, rituals, traditions, and lifestyles, with the majority of adult men relying on making and selling sarangi. In addition to selling instrument to locals and foreigners, they also seek out opportunities to perform. The elder men still wander from place to place trying to make a living as well as spreading the news and stories of the past. Other men of the younger generation make a living by singing on highway buses to entertain the passengers. However, the most interesting aspect of this village community is the creative thought and work of the Gandharba women.
The 1990 and 2006 People’s Movements in Nepal (Jana Andolan I and II) touched the lives of everyone. Entire groups of people retreated to their home villages. During these periods of unrest, the Gandharba community suffered an economic crisis. One day, the entire village gathered to find a solution to their problem. While discussing various plans and ideas, one old woman shared a new idea—that of a collective. To unite the villagers, she suggested that they collect 20 NPR per household to create a community trust. The entire village consented and immediately named the group the Gandharba Trust Society. They collected 520 NPR that day and promised to continue meeting on the first day of every month to collect more money. The community trust is used to provide loans to families who need medical treatment and schooling for their children.
As the People’s Movement calmed, the people of Bhansar returned to their everyday lives. The men started to go back to tourist cities to sell their traditional sarangi and to perform. However, this time they put a new idea into action. Whenever they met foreigners, they talked about Bhansar and their work. They also began persuading foreigners to visit Bhansar. As foreigners started to come, the villagers welcomed them with traditional music, songs, and dances. The visitors were even offered traditional food. As the visitors experienced traditional Gandharba culture, they also started making donations to the Gandharba community. The men continued bringing foreign visitors to the village, and the villagers kept bringing new life to their traditional skills and knowledge to welcome and entertain their guests.
Younger generations were also attracted to the newly found interest in their village and traditions and endeavored to follow the elders’ instruction in making traditional food, singing songs, and learning music. As opportunities arose, some men renewed the craft of making sarangi. While this had historically been a male-only endeavor, women began helping their husbands make instrument. A single day and a simple plan changed the lives of villagers and helped to revitalize traditional culture and knowledge.
The 2016 earthquake in Nepal shook up the Gandharba community but not in the same way as the People’s Movements did years ago. The people who had visited the village in the past started to send money and food. This support as well as the contributions to the community has allowed the village to remain viable during these difficult times. The community trust still distributes loans to villagers as needed. And the villagers pay back to the trust with low interest. These days, the trust is concerned with providing drinking water for the community and has used funds to make water wells. The trust also helps fund an annual festival for the community.
The Bhansar Gandharba community has given new life to traditional culture, skills, and knowledge. They are not only preserving traditions and passing them to the new generations but also contributing to safeguarding the intangible cultural heritage that has become a larger part of their lives in recent years.
Anil Gandharba (Musician, Gandharba Cultural Art Organization)